Vietnamese Americans in Orange County have been among the most reliable Republican voters in California. But the race to replace Assemblyman Van Tran, R-Costa Mesa, has flipped this logic on its head.
A young Vietnamese-American Democrat is taking on a white Republican — with a Vietnamese-American Republican running a write-in campaign that could potentially shift the balance in what is shaping up to be a very close race.
But shift it which way? Long Pham is a 59-year-old engineer who lost the GOP primary against Costa Mesa Mayor Allen Mansoor with a mere 31 percent of the vote. Since deciding to re-enter the race as a write-in in mid-August, Pham has mainly been campaigning in the Vietnamese community, which makes up nearly a quarter of likely voters in the district. This would imply that he would be more likely to take votes away from Phu Nguyen, the 33-year-old who beat out another Vietnamese-American candidate, Joe Dovinh, with 59 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
Mansoor, however, has been bearing the brunt of Pham’s attacks. Pham’s stated reason for re-entering the race is the $9,000 in donations to Mansoor from Facilities Management West, LLC. That’s the company that has been seeking to buy the Orange County Fairgrounds from the state, in a complex deal that would have the city of Costa Mesa, as the middleman. Mansoor returned the donations so he would not need to recuse himself during a key vote on the idea this summer.
During the primary, Pham had pledged to endorse Mansoor if he became the nominee. But in a June 27 email to Mansoor, Pham said Mansoor created a “negative perception” when he “returned the campaign cash, but still voted in favor of those who gave you the money.” The two men later had a meeting about the issue, which apparently did not go well.
On Aug. 16, Pham sent Mansoor another email, this one informing him of his decision to launch a write-in campaign. This time, he raised another issue: “the inferiority of your educational background compared to that of the Democratic candidate will significantly reduce your chance of winning the election.” Mansoor holds a two-year Associates Degree from Coastline Community College, and is also a police academy graduate. Pham has a PhD. in engineering management and has lectured at Cal Tech. Nguyen has a master’s degree in international relations from the University of San Diego.
Reached this week, Pham was unapologetic about attacking Mansoor’s educational credentials. He said education is one of the major issues facing the state, and is of particular importance to the Vietnamese community.
“I think it’s kind of weak for an Assemblymember for the State of California,” Pham said of Mansoor’s community college degree. “We are not a third world country.”
Mansoor’s campaign manager countered by noting that members of the Legislature have a “diverse” range of education, and that he spent 15 years working as a sheriff’s deputy.
“There’s a lot of ways of getting an education that will help him serve the community without necessarily getting a PhD.,” said Chet Morgan. “What he lacks in formal education, he has a lot of experience and street smarts and spending time in the community.”
Morgan also couldn’t resist taking a jab and Pham and his chances: “He’s definitely bad at math. I think there is some residual bitterness.”
“Long Pham” is easier to spell than “Murkowski,” but he acknowledges his campaign is a long-shot at best — though it could perhaps lay the groundwork for a 2012 run at whoever wins. Some in the local media also had a different impression of Pham’s 31 percent primary showing, saying it was surprisingly high for a far less well-known candidate working a major financial disadvantage.
While it may not have anything at all to do with Pham’s candidacy, race-watchers on both sides of the political spectrum say the race between Nguyen and Mansoor is narrowing. In July, California Target Book publisher Allen Hoffenblum, a Republican, tagged the seat as one of those most likely to flip from the GOP to Democrats this year.
On Oct. 5, a Tulchin Research poll found that Mansoor had only a 39 percent to 35 percent lead, with a full quarter of voters undecided. Nguyen led 55 percent to 19 percent among Vietnamese-American voters, while trailing 29 percent to 44 percent among non-Vietnamese voters. Strikingly, Nguyen led 52 percent to 21 percent among Vietnamese Republicans.
While the Vietnamese-Americans of Orange County have been reliable Republicans, they’re also unusual ones. They fled the Communist takeover of South Vietnam at the end of the war, but lack some of the other ties that bind many voters to the GOP.
“They are not Republican because they’re born again Christians,” said Ben Tulchin, who has served as a polling consultant to Capitol Weekly. “They’re not Republicans because they believe in supply-side economics. They’re Republican by tradition.”
Tulchin added that the big question with these voters is whether ethnic loyalty trump partisan identification: “There is very little difference between Vietnamese Republicans and non Republican Vietnamese. I don’t know of any other community where that is the case.”
Case in point could be Nguyen himself, who is a shoo-in member of the moderate caucus if he makes it to Sacramento. He’s anti-abortion, opposes the Proposition 19 marijuana legalization initiative, and is against new taxes. He does favor same-sex marriage, he said, as a matter of “equal protection under the law.” He said most of his family are Republicans, including his own wife.
“I got her to cross over in the primary to vote for me,” Nguyen said with a laugh. She also appears at campaign events and on his website.
Nguyen also said he is getting out ahead of a new trend of younger Vietnamese being more likely to vote for Democrats. He said the area has been shortchanged by always sending Republicans to Sacramento, and that he could get more done as a moderate member of the majority party.
“People in the district are frustrated that we haven’t been represented in the majority for two decades,” Nguyen said.